by NatureNS Executive Director, Becky Parker
The pewee is a small olive-coloured flycatcher found in intermediate and old growth mixed forests from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island westward to Saskatchewan. It winters in dry and wet forests of South America, from Columbia and Venezuela to Peru, Bolivia, and into the Brazilian Amazon, and uses a variety of habitats during its migration to the United States and Canada, including forest edges and early successional clearings. In the Maritimes, they seem to prefer mature hardwood forests and are more often found in intact, older woods dotted with lakes, marshes, treed swamps and other small waterbodies. Adults arrive in May and June and form pairs they usually keep for the entire season, building nests and raising at least one clutch of two to three young together.
About 11% of the pewee’s breeding range and an estimated 8% of the global breeding population is located within Canada. As of 2011, the Canadian population was estimated to include about 217,500 breeding pairs or 435,000 mature individuals. 30,000 of these individuals are thought to breed in Nova Scotia. Along with many other forest-dwelling birds across Canada, the Eastern wood-pewee has experienced significant declines over the last several decades due mainly to habitat loss and declining food availability.
Though recent data may indicate a new increase in numbers in the Maritimes, historic Breeding Bird Survey data suggests a decline of 70% (or 2.9% per year) over 1970-2011 and 25% decline over just 2001-2011, across the birds’ range. As a result, the wood-pewee was assessed as Special Concern under the federal Species At Risk Act in 2012 and Vulnerable under Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act in 2013. Under the provincial legislation, the Minister responsible for species at risk (in this case Natural Resources and Renewables or, formerly, Lands and Forestry) may create a Management Plan for Vulnerable species within 3 years of species listing. This document is meant to serve as a guide for actions that should help recover the species and, like Recovery Plans for Endangered and Threatened species, should be reviewed every 5 years for relevance and updating as needed. This is how the wood-pewee ended up in court in 2020, as one of several species championed by Nova Scotian naturalists concerned with the state of species at risk management in the province.
By the time the judicial review commenced, more than 60 species were listed as Endangered, Threatened, or Vulnerable in Nova Scotia, but many had not yet received their legally mandated protections in the forms of a Recovery Team, Recovery Plan, and identification of Core Habitat (for Endangered and Threatened species) or Management Team or Management Plan (for Vulnerable species.)
The applicants, Nature Nova Scotia President Bob Bancroft, Blomidon Naturalists Society, and Halifax Field Naturalists, alleged that the province had failed to meet its responsibility to the wood-pewee by not producing the required Management Plan. In their defense, the province argued that the wood-pewee’s national range necessitated collaboration with the federal government and that the Minister was waiting to adopt a federal plan. Adopting a federal plan is an option under the provincial legislation, but waiting to adopt a plan or until more data becomes available violates the legislation’s emphasis on the use of the precautionary principle, which directs the province to act in the species’ best interest even when some factors that may affect its management remain poorly understood. The pewee’s federal status was only officially listed (official listing is different from assessment) in 2017, giving the federal government until 2020 to prepare their management plan. This means that in 2016, when Nova Scotia’s pewee management plan was due, the province had no idea when a federal plan might be available and was willing to be an undetermined amount of time late in delivering on its legislated duties.
In the end, the court decided that the province had in fact failed in its responsibilities and was ordered to create a Management Plan for the Eastern wood-pewee, which the Department completed in March of 2022.
The pewee faces several threats in Nova Scotia and throughout Canada. Habitat loss in the winter range is thought to be a major driver behind the birds’ decline, but a lack of suitable breeding habitat and declines in insect prey are both likely major threats in the north as well.
In New Brunswick, mature deciduous forest declined by 18% and mature mixed forest declined by 34-68% between the 1980s and 2000s, a direct result of forest management planning favouring shorter rotation periods and creating more young forests across the province (COSEWIC, 2012). Research from the States has suggested that pewees can adapt to forest management when harvest activities create only small openings in the canopy and leave some large trees, potentially creating improved habitat for insect hunting while maintaining preferred nesting trees (Campbell et. al. 2007, Burke et. al. 2011). Similarly, pewee populations in West Virginian forests have expanded after severe diebacks within pure hemlock stands, possibly due to the creation of more open hunting areas while some surviving hemlocks continue to provide sites for nests. Other species, such as Hemlock specialists like the Acadian flycatcher, declined over the same time period (Walker, 2012).
Such sustainable forestry practices, though, are not widespread in either the Eastern United States or Canada, so whatever gains might be achieved through small-scale sustainable forestry operations in our area are likely outweighed by losses to practices like clearcutting. (Thankfully,) hemlock dieback due to the woolly adelgid hasn’t been as severe here in the Maritimes (at least, not yet) so this habitat-opening process probably isn’t benefiting pewees in Nova Scotia.
More recent work in Eastern Canada has found a strong relationship between the substantial reductions in old forests resulting from widespread clearcutting and the declines of many forest birds, suggesting that habitat loss as a result of intensive forestry activity may be a primary cause of biodiversity decline in managed landscapes (Betts et. al., 2022.) Harvest approaches that clear a large area of forest are particularly harmful. Some birds that use mature forest will abandon stands for a decade or more after a clearcut (Burke et. al. 2011.) Housing and urban development, which also clear large areas of forest, also seem to have a negative effect on pewee breeding pair densities, even if suitable habitat is available nearby (Friesen et al. 1995; Keller and Yahner 2007.)
Declining insect prey, brought about by forest and wetland loss, pesticide use, soil acidification, and climate-related changes, likely threaten the wood-pewee in similar ways to other aerial insectivores. pewee’s “hawk” their prey, watching from tree branches and snatching insects during short bursts of flight, and prefer forests with open understories and mid-canopies that are both more likely to harbour flying insects and allow for easier hunting. Though insect declines are commonly accepted as a threat to many forest birds, very little is known about historic or recent trends in flying insect abundance within pewee ranges.
Insect populations can fluctuate naturally and not all arthropod prey is equally valuable for insectivorous birds. Less than 1% of known invertebrate species have been assessed by the IUCN, though 40% of those species are already considered threatened. Data supporting an understanding of insect abundance is particularly lacking in more sparsely populated areas like the Canadian Maritimes. Still, it may be reasonable to assume that declining insect prey poses a threat to pewees in our area, as many aerial insectivores depend on specific prey species, populations do naturally fluctuate with changes in food availability, and acetdotal accounts from hobby naturalists support the idea of declining insect populations (Douglas and Shriver, 2021).
It’s not clear what effect pesticide use might have on insect populations in Nova Scotia. Cosmetic pesticide use is already somewhat limited through municipal bylaws and the provincial Non-essential Pesticides Control Act, but there are allowances for certain needs or certain types of pesticides, and agricultural, forestry, a golf course use are common. Wetland loss and broader habitat changes likely play a stronger role, though pesticide use cannot be ignored. Landscape simplification due to agricultural intensification, itself a risk for many invertebrates, is associated with greater pesticide use (Malaj and Morrissey, 2022), and in Nova Scotia, where forest composition is changing dramatically, an increasing amount of land is treated annually with herbicides like glyphosate (Charbonneau and Simpson, 2010) which may carry unintended consequences for invertebrates.
The creation of a management plan for the pewee is important because it prioritizes threats and sets actions that the province must take to address them. It also sets a goal and timeline for population management; in this case, the maintenance of a stable or increasing population by 2036.
The Management Team felt that housing and urban development, energy generation, and mining posed only low threats to the wood-pewee, where insect declines and forestry both carry much greater potential impact, scope, and severity. To reduce these risks, the province suggests a number of management actions: habitat protection through the protected areas system, promotion of ecological forestry and other kinds of forest stewardship, and the strengthening or development of policy and laws that protect habitat and address aerial insectivore declines. The Management Plan also calls for the establishment of a monitoring program, strategic partnership with NGOs and researchers, and improved outreach materials such as Best Management Practices.
The timing of the Management Plan is somewhat ironic, as its action recommendations stand in stark contrast to how public lands are being managed in much of the province. The province recently rolled back protections for wetlands of special significance, allowing for fewer barriers to development in wet habitats and excluding automatic protection for wetlands supporting Vulnerable species like the wood-pewee. Wetlands are disappearing in urban areas where the need for new housing and a provincial order to fast-track development are creating conflict with green space goals. Conservation organizations like us and friends at the Healthy Forest Coalition have criticized the province for only minimally improving the previous old growth policy. The Parks and Protected Areas Plan, now a decade old, identified public lands with conservation value that still aren’t officially designated as parks, wilderness areas, or other kinds of protected areas.
Still, there’s hope for the pewee. The SAR vs Nova Scotia judicial review taught us that citizens can and must hold government accountable if we want to protect our rarest wildlife. The same naturalists who mobilized to take the province to court are also citizen scientists, and they span the whole province. We invite you to take action for the wood-pewee and other species at risk by voicing your concerns for the state of our forests and contributing to much needed research.
You Can Help
Report Pewee Sightings
- Monitoring pewee populations outside formal programs like the Breeding Bird Atlas may be difficult as the bird can be tricky for citizen scientists to identify. The distinct, three-phased “pee-ah-wee” song is an easy identifier but a quiet bird is virtually indistinguishable from other flycatchers by looks alone. The Acadian and olive-sided flycatchers are also listed species at risk, so it may do hobby naturalists well to learn to differentiate between the flycatcher species. Learn online, join a natural history group like the Nova Scotia Bird Society, then report your sightings to eBird or volunteer for Breeding Bird Atlas projects!
Demand Ecological Forestry, Now
- In 2021, government passed the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act with only two small amendments. Several groups, including Nature Nova Scotia, participated in the consultation process for the Act and recommended that nature-based climate solutions be better incorporated into the goals drafted by government. This would include immediate implementation of ecological forestry as recommended by the Lahey Report. Well, it’s 2023 and we are not seeing meaningful action in the woods. Use our mailer to send a message to the Premier and Minister, or call the Minister at 902-424-5935 and tell them that further delays on ecological forestry are unacceptable.
- An Eastern wood-pewee Special Management Practice should be mandatory on public lands and at least encouraged through strategic incentives and education on private lands. Write to Minister Rushton and ask when Nova Scotians can expect new public land management best practices for this species at risk.
Make Room for Nature
- In response to the UN Convention on Biodiversity call for expanded global protected areas, Canada has committed to a two-stage expansion of our protected areas system. We will protect 25% of land and ocean by 2025 and 30% by 2030. For Nova Scotia’s part, the provincial government is committed to increasing protected areas to 20% by 2030. Help us Make Room For Nature by getting informed and asking your representative to protect pewee habitat as we work toward this goal.
Take a Stand for Wetlands
- The provincial Wetland Policy, Forests Act, and municipal bylaws should protect small forested wetlands. This could be achieved through Environmental Assessment, improved processes for designated Wetlands of Special Significance, a permit process, or partnership with non-profit partners to identify, track, and regulate our smallest swamps, bogs, and vernal pools. Talk to your MLA or councilor about how they’re protecting wetlands in your area.
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
- Justice Christa Brothers prefacing her 58-page written ruling with a quote from the 1971 Dr. Seuss story, The Lorax.
Betts, M.G., Yang, Z., Hadley, A.S. et al. Forest degradation drives widespread avian habitat and population declines. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 709–719 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01737-8
Burke, D., K. Elliott, K. Falk, and T. Piraino. 2011. A Land Manager’s Guide to
Conserving Habitat for Forest Birds in Southern Ontario. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. 134 pp. Accessed Oct 28, 2023 from: https://npca.ca/images/uploads/common/mnr-guide-s-ontario-forestry.pdf
Campbell, S.P., J.W. Witham, and M.L. Hunter Jr. 2007. Long-term effects of groupselection timber harvesting on abundance of forest birds. Conservation Biology 21:1218–1229.
Charbonneau, D. and Simpson, J. 2010. Forest Herbicides as a Vegetation Management Tool: Perspectives on the future of forest management in Nova Scotia. Ecology Action Centre, Halifax.
COSEWIC. 2012. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Eastern Wood-pewee Contopus virens
in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. x + 39 pp.
Douglas W Tallamy, W Gregory Shriver, Are declines in insects and insectivorous birds related?, Ornithological Applications, Volume 123, Issue 1, 1 February 2021, duaa059, https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithapp/duaa059
Friesen, L.E., P.F.J. Eagles, and R.J. Mackay. 1995. Effects of residential development
on forest-dwelling neotropical migrant songbirds. Conservation Biology 9:1408-1414
Keller, G.S. and R.H. Yahner. 2007. Seasonal forest-patch use by birds in fragmented landscapes of south-central Pennsylvania. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119:410- 418
Malaj, E. and Morrissey, C. A. 2022. Increased reliance on insecticide applications in Canada linked to simplified agricultural landscapes. Ecological Society of America, https://doi.org/10.1002/eap.2533
Walker, D. M. 2012. Radial growth response of eastern hemlock to infestation of hemlock woolly adelgid. Thesis submitted to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
The Nova Scotia Eastern Wood Pewee Management Team includes: Dr. John Brazner (NS Department of Natural Resources and Renewables), James Churchill (Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre), Dr. Lisa Doucette (NS Department of Natural Resources and Renewables), Dr. Tara Imlay (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Kathy St. Laurent (Environment and Climate Change Canada), and Dr. Laura Tranquilla (Bird Studies Canada)
Read our other updates on the SAR featured in the 2020 judicial review
- Spring 2020: NS Adopts Federal Recovery Plan for the Wood Turtle
- Fall 2020: NS Releases Rams Head Lady Slipper Recovery Plan
- Fall 2021: NS Releases Moose Recovery Plan with Required Population Goal and Core Habitat
- Fall 2021: NS Updates Black Ash Recovery Plan with Required Core Habitat Definition
- Winter 2021: NS Adopts Federal Recovery Plan for the Canada Warbler
Can you help us fill research gaps for species at risk in Nova Scotia? We’re focused on the Endangered mainland moose at the moment. Help us generate new information to inform management decisions by donating to our SAR Fund: